Thursday, February 26, 2015

95 Years of Horror with Doctor Caligari

When I was about fourteen years old MTV was my gateway into music videos. That’s right, MTV used to play music videos and a ton of them at that. When I was a young teen, we did have the internet, but it took longer to download a video than it did to watch the damn thing, so channels like MTV and VH1were a godsend. One day I was at my Dad’s house and I was chatting on the phone with my friend, Hillary while I had a magazine in front of my and the tv blaring. Mid-sentence I stopped talking. A song I have never heard before was coming from the tv. It was unlike anything I had ever really heard and the music video that went with it was unlike anything I had ever seen, mainly because it was in black and white. The video was shot as if it were a silent film. It had everything I never knew I wanted in a music video. It had a great storyline, a pretty lady, and a little bit of horror. When the video ended I learned that song was called “Living Dead Girl” by Rob Zombie. That sparked my undying love for this Rob Zombie and his music. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I discovered the inspiration for this specific music video was a 1920’s film called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Rob and Sheri Moon Zombie in "Living Dead Girl"

On February 26, 1920, arguably, one of the most influential horror films was released for the world to see. That film is the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Now, I say arguably because I have heard and read opinions where people tear this film a new one. I have heard it called expressionism at it’s worst and that it is a reject zombie film. Personally, I find neither to be true. This film was revolutionary from the set and storyline to even the movements of the actors. It was impressive for 1920 and still influences pop culture today. But, before I get into specifics, it’s probably in my best interest to give you a little taste of the story this film tells. It seems kind of silly to expect everyone to know the details of a horror flick that has been out for 95 years just because I freaking love it!


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins with two men telling stories with a lady,  Jane, near by.  Francis, the main character, shares his tale of visiting of a carnival in a German mountain town with his friends Alan and Jane  This is where they first encounter Dr. Caligari and his somnambulist, Cesare. Somnambulist is a fancy word for sleepwalker. Dr. Caligari keeps Cesare in a coffin-like cabinet. When the show begins, he uses his sleepwalker to tell the future and reveal secrets through hypnotism. 

Alan decides to ask Cesare a question. He wants to know how long he will live. Cesare tells Alan that he will die at dawn and the prophecy is fulfilled. Alan dies a violent death at the hands of a shadowy figure. It is now brought to Francis and Jane’s attention that Alan was only the most recent in a series of unsolved murders at the hands of a shadowy figure.

Cesare, the somnambulist

Francis and Jane decide to investigate, Cesare and Dr. Caligari being the main suspects. When Dr. Calgari learns about this he orders Cesare to murder Jane. Luckily, Cesare thinks Janes is beautiful and refuses to kill her. However, he does kidnap her. This involves a crazy chase with angry villagers that you would think was ripped off from Frankenstein, but that film won’t be coming out for another twelve years. In the meantime, Francis goes searching for answers at a local psychiatric hospital to find out if Caligari was ever a patient only to discover that Caligari is the asylums director. The story gets even more strange with a huge twist that I won’t ruin for those of you who wish to watch this film. PS It is available to stream on Netflix until March 1st. 

This film has a great plot is absolutely stunning to watch. This was the first film in history to not only have a plot twist, but is also the earliest example of a frame story in film. A frame story is where one told through memories or flashbacks. It is also, arguably, the first true horror film ever made. Other aspects that make this film the true gem that it is are the visuals that come with he tale. You have actors moving in hypnotic, stiff manners that almost look like some sort of distorted dance. The sets also make this film what it is. They are so simple, yet so complex at the same time. The film used stylized sets, with abstract, jagged buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats. This set paired with the jerky movements really made this silent film quite horrifying.

Cesare with Jane in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

As I mentioned earlier, this film is what inspired the music video for Rob Zombie’s “Living Dead Girl”. On top of that, it also inspired another music video that was made for specifically for a horror film, Queen of the Damned. In Queen of the Damn, Lestat gets his time in the limelight by starting a band that he fronts. Throughout the film, you can hear the music of Lestat and his band and even see some of their music videos. The opening credits feature a music video for the Lestat song called “Forsaken” that uses the story and set of the film for its theme just as Rob Zombie’s did, only slightly different. These are my most favorite references that used The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for inspiration. However, music was not the only medium that was influenced by this film.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspires much of German culture in terms of art, dark psychology in character development for films, and film. It also influenced film an art in other countries, but German works are more well known for this. Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, and Secrets of a Soul. In more recent times, even the popular show, Portlandia has taken a crack at the good doctors expense. 

Scene from Queen of the Damned, the "Forsaken" Music Video

Regardless of who this film has inspired, I think this will one will always have a special place in my dark little heart. 

Stay Sweet and Twisted,

Krystal Lake